Life As a Queer Volunteer

José is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.

 

Before coming to Colombia, I didn’t think I would have much culture shock. After all, I’m of Latino origins, I speak Spanish at home, and I’ve lived in Mexico and Chile. However, I was wrong.  The move came with significant culture shock, and the reason behind it was something I hadn’t thought would be such a big deal for me.

I identify as queer, and after my other experiences living abroad, I came out and my life slowly but surely became very gay…to the point that I took it for granted. So, coming to such a conservative culture, living in towns with no anonymity, and living closeted again at work, in the community, and at home hit me like a ton of bricks.

I made local gay friends in Barranquilla, which is only about a 40-minute bus ride from my pueblo, and I discovered that the queer culture isn’t like it is in the US. Because the culture is so much more hidden and taboo here than in the US, it means that the local urban LGBT culture is far riskier and underground. On the town level, I went to an LGBT association meeting and was shocked to find out that the few LGBT members all believe that they were turned gay because they grew up with sisters or lacked a father presence. I have also heard of two incidences within this past year of guys getting beaten up in my town for being gay. It’s a reality that’s a lot more real here than in the States. Discrimination is also accepted in restaurants, hotels, and many other public spaces and can lead to arrests.

These are our realities as LGBT volunteers unfortunately. I say this to put a spotlight on the issue for those of you that don’t face this reality. I’m not asking for pity or sorry faces either. One thing all minorities learn early on is to grow a thick skin and learn to thrive in areas where it’s difficult.

And there are good things that have happened. Some unexpected: like friends opening their eyes to these realities, or your town — the same one that beats up your queer brothers and sisters — having an LGBT carnaval parade and celebrating queer culture, or making new friends with other amazing volunteers going through the same struggles. I have also been extremely lucky to have established a relationship with a local man that I’m crazy about and see a fantastic future with…in fact he’s meeting my friends and family next month in the States and I couldn’t be more excited!

One of my favorite people in Colombia, Megyn, a fellow volunteer, has been a pillar for me. Both of us approached a few people in the office with the idea of starting LGBT+ meetings that are open to allies and eventually met with Geralyn, Jonathan, and Ketty about this possibility. They were very supportive and we were given their blessing to have these meetings in conjunction with the diversity committee while keeping them open to all volunteers and staff members.

This past Saturday we finally had our first meeting. It was such a relief to have a safe space to speak openly about our experiences. We all exchanged stories of different situations we have faced: homophobic jokes at work, receiving anti-gay propaganda from work, dealing with conservative host families, struggling making friends with members of our same gender, the constant use of the word “marica”, etc. A feeling we all share is that safety comes first, and this entails not just suppressing our sexuality but also who we are, keeping our opinions quiet to not get physically hurt or shunned at work or within the community into which we are integrating. We all also understand that our views on the topic aren’t shared and a lot of the time most people don’t have exposure to anything queer, besides the stereotypes.

Megyn pointed out something important to me on Saturday: a lot of the issue here on the coast comes from the deeply rooted machismo and sexism in the region. In fact, she mentioned that as a woman she sees and experiences more sexism than homophobia, but homophobia fundamentally carries sexism. There are definite ties between both issues. Peoples who don’t fall in line with the expected gender roles, identities, expressions, and/or attractions become outcasts. However, those who defy norms by behaving in what is perceived as a more “feminine” manner are subject to even greater disapproval and mistreatment. For example, gay men get made fun of more than gay women, and trans women are more frequently the victims of violence than trans men. What this reflects is a culture of machismo which understands all that is conventionally feminine to be inherently inferior. I couldn’t agree more with her!

Within the next few days we will be visiting an LGBT not-for-profit organization called Caribe Afirmativo to learn about their work, explore the possibility of our assisting their efforts, and to see what resources they might be able to make available to us in our towns.

If you are interested in attending any of the LGBT meetings, in learning more about queer culture, or in joining us in community involvement, please reach out to me and I will be happy to talk. Much love and appreciation to you all!

 

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One response to “Life As a Queer Volunteer

  1. This piece just took me back to so many of my experiences while struggling with my sexual orientation in a conservative region of Colombia. Definitely relate to being a pariah of sorts for not falling in line with strict gender roles. I also can see that I may have been overly compliant with men to disguise my queerness, which of course could be a potentially unsafe situation.

    At the same time, coastal Colombia is a culture that I grew to love and appreciate. I made great friendships there and have visited even after COS. However, as I’ve returned to the States and grown increasingly more comfortable with who I am, I struggle with the decision to return to my community while hiding a significant part of who I am.

    I am so glad that PCVs are creating support networks. Those safe spaces are everything! Keep up the great work. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Like

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